I ❤ January 2015

When TV shows run out of ideas, they fall back on that old faithful: the clip show compiling all of the ‘best bits’.

And when they run out of their own TV shows, there are always clip shows made up of the best bits of other people’s shows: the I ❤ 1984 (etc.) model, featuring talking heads from D-list celebrities reminiscing about the time that dog said “sausages” on That’s Life.

As a D-list blogger myself (what do you mean I’m getting above my station?), this regurgitation of other people’s brilliance is the perfect model for me to reminisce on the best blog posts of each month (with the added implication that I’ve run out of ideas).

(In all seriousness, I got to the end of 2014 and realised I’d read so many great blogs but not really collected them anywhere. So this monthly blog is a way for me to compile an anthology of some of the best reading in one place and be able to access it when I want to call upon it again.)

So without further ado, this is my ‘clip show’ of the blogposts that I read and enjoyed the most in January…

  • The nonsense of the grade descriptors by @chrishildrew: Chris went down the rabbit hole of grade descriptors and has exposed us to the mad tea party. As Alice said, “How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another.”
  • Why I Hate Highlighters! by @HuntingEnglish: I like this because Alex confirms what I think I might have always feared, but never quite confronted: highlighters often put a garish neon gloss over a lack of actual learning. Rumours are unconfirmed that this is the first in a series of ‘Why I Hate…’ blogs, which will feature other such objects of Alex’s anathema as children and Maths teachers. (For balance, and because I like him, this is highlighter advocate @jon_brunskill‘s rebuttal.)
  •  Some Problems With “Action Research” by @Bio_Joe: Thanks to this brilliant post by Joe, I’ve now added the word significant to my list of words-that-are-used-in-a-way-which-often-leaves-their-actual-meaning-behind-in-order-to-promote-a-pedagogy (see impact, evidence, research, etc.) The “study” Joe picks apart here comes from a website riddled with spurious arguments and “research” in the name of “evidence”. Which is a shame because it is an area I’d like to see some reasoned thought around.
  • Can we teach students to make inferences? by @atharby: Andy precisely and eloquently pinpoints the very reasons why teaching thinking skills is largely unhelpful, and why building student knowledge is a much more effective approach. I wish I’d had this to hand when I sat through a cognitive acceleration training course that promoted thinking skills in English recently.
  • How do we get them reading? by @katie_s_ashford: Katie generously shares the fruits of her scrutiny on the research and approaches to solving “the problem of reading”. These systematic and practical ideas are absolute gold – send this to your literacy coordinators/English department/SLT/everyone now.
  • Undermining teachers is easy by @LearningSpy: The blogdaddy David Didau reiterates the necessity for schools to master behaviour as requisite for learning, and decries the damaging line of thought (avowed in this instance by a school inspector, no less) that states that good behaviour is merely a product of good teaching.
  • A lesson is the wrong unit of time by @BodilUK: A second blog from Bodil, in which she questions why our discourse and measurement always revolves around ‘the lesson’ as a unit, when the reality of learning expands way beyond that unit’s boundaries. She’s absolutely right, as usual.
  • I Did Not Speak Out by @SurrealAnarchy: Martin’s writing always provokes deep thought, and this clever channelling of Pastor Niemöller is a stirring illustration of the constantly shifting focuses and measurements in schools (and the impact of these on pupils and teachers).

The map is not the territory: embracing desire paths in the curriculum

I once visited a school where the English teachers were whispering about their plan to teach grammar more comprehensively to their pupils. The reason they were so hushed was so that their head of department couldn’t hear them: it turned out that the head had designed a curriculum that was a little too light on grammar for their liking, but demanded that that curriculum was followed to the letter. The teachers took this oversight into their hands and a clandestine curriculum was developed, complete with a black market of resources. The staffroom was a speakeasy – the conversation flipped like the tables in Bugsy Malone when anyone walked in.

I’m sure we’ve all gone off-piste when it comes to curriculums – a good teacher will always respond to the needs of the class. But when  more than one teacher takes the same roving trail, what is created is what we might call a desire path.

I first came across the idea of desire paths during a module on my Literature degree centred on the motif of the city in writing, but they are a concept that belong more to urban sociology, psychogeography or town planning than the arts. Sometimes referred to as ‘desire lines’, these are the unplanned pathways created when people walk over the same ground again and again. Seen as organic footpaths that dismiss the prescribed routes, they have been described as an “ultimate unbiased expression of human purpose”.


We might choose to tut and point out the ‘Keep Off the Grass’ sign to those creating these paths, and we could also dismiss it as an act of cutting corners (in a pejorative sense). But it’s worth looking at the reasons behind their occurrence before rejecting them. Desire paths usually emerge because the prescribed route is inefficient and circuitous. But they can also appear because no current route is existent: they fulfil a need that hasn’t been fulfilled by town planners. The best town planners acknowledge the desire paths and incorporate them into their urban design.

It is important to note that desire paths aren’t created by just a handful of transgressors; they are the result of numerous people choosing a more effective and efficient route.

The desire paths of a curriculum can be seen where pockets of teachers seem to be following the same unprescribed route away from that which has been laid down, as with the story I related above. In such a case, it would be profitable for curriculum designers to look at the desire path and determine why it has appeared: does it fulfil a need that hasn’t been fulfilled by the curriculum?

People often look to Finland as a standard-bearer in education, thanks to Pisa league tables. However, it is in town planning that they could inspire us on curriculum design. It’s been reported that Finnish town planners are known to wait until the first snowfall and then visit local parks. They then note the desire paths that have been created by footprints in the snow, and use these to design the positions and routes of their appointed paths.

Such a responsive approach is important in curriculum design. The desire paths of a curriculum will be where a number of teachers are  teaching content which isn’t prescribed but which fills the gaps left by a narrow or incomplete map.

As long as leaders are approachable and receptive – unlike in the anecdote I began with – they will notice the ‘footprints in the snow’ in the conversations they have and witness around them.

But whether curriculum designers choose to acknowledge desire paths or not, the beauty of them is that they continue to exist and fill out the unfilled gaps and address the unaddressed needs of our curriculums.

And that’s why most curriculums largely succeed, in spite of themselves. It’s why the department that I discussed at the beginning of this blogpost are a successful one.